Posted by: smstrouse | February 1, 2014

My Review of “Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism”

41TRyl9jC-L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Robert (“Obie”) Holmen has written a comprehensive history of the struggle for full inclusion of LGBT clergy within mainline churches (or ecumenical Protestantism, a term Holmen has adopted). The denominations covered include the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (of which I’m a member). The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church.

Naturally, I had to turn to the ELCA section first, since my congregation figures prominently in its story. First United was expelled from the ELCA in 1996 for calling and extraordinarily ordaining the Rev. Jeff Johnson, an openly gay seminarian whose approval for ordination had been rescinded by the newly formed ELCA’s policy of exclusion. While I obviously was not the pastor at the time of the ordination or the trial and expulsion, I was part of First United’s decision-making process to rejoin the ELCA after the policy change in 2009. In doing so, I’d say we answered CBS reporter John Blackstone’s question at the time of the extra ordinem ordinations (quoted by Holmen): “Are they out of step with their church or a step ahead?” Even though I know the story, I was engrossed by Holmen’s telling of it, with stories about and by the key players, as well as constitutional and procedural data. 

But the value of this book goes well beyond my own personal interest. I was intrigued by the accounts of the other denominations as well. By reading these extremely well documented accounts of each denomination, one can understand better the struggles of each to address this issue within the confines of its polity. We are not all alike in how we make decisions. For example, Holmen describes the culture clash between emerging American values and those of the third-world, which has particularly affected the Methodists’ process of full inclusion.

I also appreciated Holmen’s attention to the interconnectedness of the struggles for LGBT ordination and the ordination of women. He posits that misogyny and homophobia are two sides of the same sociological coin, and that in a patriarchal system such as traditional Christianity, the two are yoked as a paired tandem. Therefore, the two movements should naturally be supportive of each other.

Interestingly, I’ve seen this played out in the ELCA, which has a quota system that mandates equal female participation at synod assemblies, etc. Holmen cites statistical evidence that women, and especially women clergy, tend to be more progressive than their male counterparts. This has meant that the increased role of women in leadership positions has moved the church in a more progressive direction. Conservative commentators concur, railing against the quota system as a contributing factor in the vote that allowed LGBT clergy in 2009.

Speaking of conservatives, I also found the accounts of the “gatekeeper organizations” fascinating. Included are not only those within each denomination, but also outside organizations, such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a neo-conservative “think tank,” which works to blunt the progressive influence of the ecumenical churches.

All in all, this is both a must-have reference book and a good read. There’s a lot of blow-by-blow information about constitutional wrangling that’s useful for understanding how these decisions are made. But there’s also a wealth of personal stories of the women and men who have lived and served in the midst of these wranglings. We owe it to them to hear their stories, honor their witness and move the church forward in the on-going quest for liberation and the full inclusion of all people.

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